At an exclusive academy, the tomboyish Utena Tenjou forms a close friendship with the shy and reserved Anthy Himemiya. But Anthy’s at the center of a strange, jealously-guarded secret ritual that involves the other students dueling for the right to possess Anthy as the “Rose Bride.”
A plot summary for this groundbreaking series does it no justice. Part high school soap opera, part surreal fantasy, part comedy, part psychological drama, Utena confounds expectations and enthralls viewers, and routinely shows up on “best-of” lists for good reasons: there hasn’t been anything like it before or since.
- A surreal and original story without comparison.
- Once started it has to be watched all the way through for the full impact to be felt.
- Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara
- Animation Studio: J.C. Staff / SoftX
- Released By: TV Tokyo
- Released Domestically By: Nozomi Entertainment / The Right Stuf International
- Audio: English / Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-14 (violence, thematic material)
- List Price: $49.99 (DVD)
- Princess Tutu
- Ouran High School Host Club
No label will tell you everything
It may be best to walk into Revolutionary Girl Utena knowing as little as possible what to expect. Utena has the flavor of a fairy tale, the plotting of a drama about teenagers in high school, the look and feel of an experimental film, and the cumulative impact of a physical blow. It’s hard to believe a show this outwardly mannered, visually stylized and at times downright strange could become so compelling and impossible to turn away from, but that’s the truth. Once you climb on board Utena’s train, you won’t want to climb off.
Set in the gigantic and lavish Ohtori Academy, Utena’s title character is one of the students—an athletic fourteen-year-old with a penchant for wearing a boy’s outfit, much to the consternation of the teachers and the delight of the female classmates who idolize her. She lost her parents when she was only eight, but a prince gave her a gift of a ring with a rose insignia, and she has been striving to emulate his princely example ever since. Before long she stumbles into one of the school’s dark inner circles, where students compete in a fencing duel to win the hand of one of the other female classmates: the gentle and retiring Anthy Himemiya. Without quite realizing what she’s blundered into, Utena wins—and accepts Anthy as her “bride.”
The perils of having a bride
From what Utena can tell, having Anthy as the “Rose Bride” means at the very least having Anthy obey her every whim. But Utena has no interest in subordinates; she thinks of Anthy as a friend and a peer, not a slave, and does her cheerful best to treat Anthy in kind. Anthy’s other would-be masters, like the arrogant and handsome Kiryuu Touga, or the erratic and angry Saionji Kyouichi, think of her either as a token to be wrested away or a piece of property to be cherished—but rarely, if ever, as a human being.
It’s clear Utena and Anthy deserve each other, but some troubling facts emerge. One is Utena’s hesitancy about protecting Anthy via the context of the duels. She does not want to fight; she finds the whole thing faintly stupid. But everyone else within the school’s inner circle of students takes the whole thing far more seriously than she does, and soon she realizes she has no choice but to do the same. The other is even more distressing: the idea that Anthy may not want to be “saved”—that being the Rose Bride is all she knows and all she would ever want to know, and that Utena for all her good intentions may be the greater fool for trying to rescue her. Even worse is something else even deeper under that: the suggestion that she savors her position as a subordinate, and is in fact using it to manipulate others. Under it all, she ain’t no nice girl: like Utena, she too is bound to the past, but not in a constructive way.
Never what you expect
The beauty of the show is how all these heavier psychological dimensions to everything get slipped under the door while you’re watching. You don’t notice most of it at first; you’re too busy gaping at the show’s wild visual stylization or getting swept up in the larger melodrama of the plot. Some episodes are out-and-out nonsense, like one where Utena and Anthy are stuck in each other’s bodies because of a dish of curry (no, seriously), or the one where progressively crazier things turn up in Utena’s room and she and Anthy have allegedly logical explainations for all of it.
But over time the darker, heavier elements add up, and before long they accrue enough weight to knock the floor out from under you. The first hint of how genuinely heavy this show can get comes in the final couple of episodes in this set, where Utena loses Anthy to another duelist, has her self-image destroyed, and questions whether idolizing the prince was worth it in the first place. How this is resolved is best not spoiled here, but it sets the stage for the next set of episodes and provides a strong hint of just how powerful an emotional storm this show will rain down on the viewer.